The battle of procrastination

 

Have you been dreading a task on your to do list for so long that it makes you panic whenever you remember it? Have you been ignoring the reminder notifications on your calendar for pending or delayed tasks? Have you thought of cleaning the kitchen – or the whole house – before sitting down and writing your next thesis chapter? Have you spent the whole day binge-watching your favourite show on Netflix instead of finalising that paper draft?

Well, if you answered yes to any of these questions then you may have been procrastinating. But don’t worry, procrastination is a common habit students resort to when escaping the pressure. It usually starts by putting things off intentionally and may turn into a habitual practice over time. The key is in the word “habit”, meaning we can control and change it, if we want to.

Procrastination prevents us from keeping our time, attention and energy in harmony, and results from two main reasons. First, how our brain is structured. Our brains have a pleasure centre (the limbic system) and the planning and decision-making centre (the prefrontal cortex). For example, the limbic system would much prefer you to join your friends for a night out (lockdowns permitting!), whereas the prefrontal cortex thrives on solving a difficult maths problem. While maths can be fun (to some!), most people would probably like to hang out with their friends rather than staying at home doing their taxes, for example. That is because we are often more likely to give in to pleasurable activities than take on arduous tasks.

Add to this the element of stress when deciding which activity to prioritise, and the limbic system almost always wins. Similarly, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for making difficult decisions throughout your PhD such as how to design the method of study, reading scientific papers, filling in ethics form, teaching, or presenting at a conference. You might find pleasure in completing your PhD tasks, thus involving the limbic system in the process. However, the limbic system may encourage you to choose an action with an immediate gratification instead of academic work, based on previous pleasure gained from certain activities, e.g. watching TV. So, next time you decide to binge-watch a show on Netflix instead of reading a scientific paper, be aware that you helped the limbic system to win the procrastination battle over the prefrontal cortex.

You may reverse the outcome of this battle and change the habit of procrastinating by paying more attention to the task you are trying to avoid. That brings me to the second cause of procrastination: the characteristics of the task itself. We mainly tend to procrastinate when we are averse to a task. As described by Chris Bailey in his book “The Productivity Project”, when a task has any of the following characteristics we may find it aversive:

  1. Boring (e.g., filling in lengthy forms);
  2. Frustrating (e.g., learning a complicated new skill);
  3. Difficult (e.g., solving a maths problem);
  4. Ambiguous (e.g., presenting at a conference);
  5. Unstructured (e.g., responding to emails and attending meetings);
  6. Lacking in intrinsic rewards (e.g., not making progress in your PhD work);
  7. Not meaningful (e.g., cleaning up the home office).

How to win the battle

Let’s look at how we can overcome the continuous battle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, in other words winning “the battle of procrastination”. When you find yourself procrastinating next time, ask yourself how you can make the task at hand less boring, unstructured, difficult or frustrating. Besides reversing the characteristics of the tasks and making them more interesting, I also recommend the techniques explained below to overcome procrastination:. If you would like to learn more techniques, I highly recommend reading “The productivity Project”  by Chris Bailey and “Deep WORK” by Cal Newport (you may also watch a summary of the book Here).

Completing a PhD is not an easy journey. It throws many challenges your way and it is your responsibility to equip yourself with the right skills to overcome these challenges. One challenge is winning the procrastination battle. By making better and informed choices, you will be able to make a better use of your time and be at the top of your to do list. Among this and other battles and challenges, don’t forget to be kind to yourself and reward yourself regularly.

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